Forging through Tamaulipas

    I’ve been lost in the Mexican countryside for four days now without food or water, but fortunately I found wifi.  Just kidding!  Okay, so I’m really in Ciudad Victoria at the moment.  It was a long road, but I knew that eventually I would one day get here.  Victoria was my first planned stop on my route through Mexico, and somewhat more of a stopping point (mostly to find internet and update my site, for all of you) on my way to Reserva de la Biosfera el Cielo (the biosphere).  Its been a few days since my last update and I’ve got a lot to cover, so I guess I’d better get started.

    Well, back in the United States, I had finally arrived in the border town of McAllen and was just becoming acquainted with my new hosts, Curt and Francisco.  I had been in touch with Francisco online for two weeks before we met, and over that time we had already managed to get to know each other somewhat.  Ironically, Francisco had literally just returned from Ushuaia (the intended furthest Southern point of my journey) and Antarctica where he had been running in Marathons!  This was great news, as not only would he be a great  resource for any of my questions, but also showed that he was a fellow traveler, such as myself.  On top of that, while I was riding in on the final few miles of blistering heat to McAllen, Curt rode out to meet me on his bike and I soon learned that he was an avid cyclist as well and had participated in a number of adventurous rides over the years!  Well, obviously we quickly hit it off, and once I was inside their spacious, air-conditioned house, freshened-up, and chatting over the lunch, I found that Curt and Francisco made for excellent company after a long isolating ride through the furnace-like scrub country.  Francisco was gregarious and outgoing, constantly insisting on being the most impeccable host possible and always going out of his way to prepare meals, plan excursions and provide any information to help me in my journey – he even slept on the living room floor so that I could sleep in his bed!  Francisco also always wore a smile and had an amazing passion for travel and learning new languages.  Curt, on the other hand, was generally somewhat softer spoken, but equally outgoing and had a way of making you feel completely at ease while truly listening to whatever I was saying.  During the days that I spent there, Curt and I had many deep and engaging conversations, went on several bike rides around the city, and always ate breakfast and lunch together.  I also found that mine and Curt’s senses of humor complemented each other well and we constantly found something to laugh about.

    My time in McAllen found me finishing up a few of my last minute tasks before crossing the border while relaxing in good company.  Most days consisted of sleeping in, enjoying my morning coffee with Curt, cycling around town looking for Curt’s mysteriously disappearing keys, munching on Boca Burgers with chips and salsa verde for lunch, then waiting for Francisco to return from work for our evening plans.  On my first night there, the three of us sat outside under the lavender twilight, enjoying a glass of red wine while the evening breezes swayed the arching bows of trees in the peaceful nearby golf course.  We talked of life and travel and the fictitious insecurities that prevented people from pursuing their dreams and constantly saying “I wish I had done that when I had the chance.”  The following evening, we took a little field trip across the border to inquire about a permit for my travel to Mexico, which, although the visit ended fruitlessly, it did provide me insight into the wiles of dealing with Mexican border officials.  It was also interesting to see the change in societal climate after crossing the border, and the clusters of pharmacies on every corner.  Afterwards we headed to Taco Palenque, a local chain, for some funky tasting, bright green margaritas and a fajita.  On Tuesday night we decided to cross the border again, this time in the tourist town of Progreso, for some quasi-authentic Mexican style dining, and we hoped, also Folklorico.  This border crossing was somewhat quieter than the one in Reynosa and had a more welcoming feel to it.  We crossed the bridge spanning the Rio Grande as the sun was dipping in the sky and the water down below sparkled in the golden light.  Apparently, due to the recent rise in drug smuggling violence along the border towns, tourism had decreased and most of the vendors had started closing up shop early in the evenings.  We muddled through a few of the remaining open kiosks and stores before making our way to Ay Jalisco.  Once there, we entered a bright and festively decorated dining room, which, although there were two live singers performing on a small stage, was almost completely empty.  However, the food was delicious and we were able to enjoy a large frozen margarita to  accompany our jovial conversation.  Afterwards we returned to the US and our awaiting friends – Tula, Bella (the dogs), Blackie, Hobo, and Nomi (the cats) for a nightcap.  Escandalito, my new monkey traveling companion (compliments of Franciso) also joined us for a little instigation.  Finally, on my last evening before crossing the border for good, Curt and I spent the day on a long wild goose cycle for his lost keys, then adjourned to the house where we fixed up some Sangria, shaved my head to prepare for the oncoming heat-wave of Mexico, and awaited Francisco’s return from his television interview regarding his marathons at the ends of the earth. That evening had a somewhat more somber mood to it, especially as Curt and I felt the lethargic pull of our earlier red wine.

    The evening before, I had said my goodbye’s to Francisco, as he would be leaving for work early the next morning.  However, when I awoke and came down the stairs, it was like a vagabond’s Christmas, as Curt had coffee and scratch-made biscuits at the ready and Francisco had prepared a huge care package of goodies for me to take on the road (bagels, citrus green tea mixers, cookies, sun-screen, and more!).  I was truly in awe at the amazing hospitality and generosity of these two fantastic new friends that I had made and knew that I would sorely miss them once I had crossed into the wild frontiers of Mexico.   Nevertheless, after breakfast I began packing my bags, which of course took me several hours (it always does after I’ve managed expand my belongings over the course of several days).  But eventually I was ready to hit the road.  Curt and I headed to the garage, bid one another adieu, and opened the garage door.  In that moment, I almost changed my mind and decided to stay a few more days.  The heat outside was sweltering, with the temperature at 99 degrees and rising the further South I would go.  But I had to be strong, this was the nature of the next several months of my journey and sooner or later I would need to leave the luxury of modern America and re-evolve into the form that human beings used to exist in – without air conditioning.  

    I set out into the sunlight and rode my donkey the final six miles to the border, persuaded to official at the border to grant me a tourist permit, and forged onward, into the chaos of Reynosa.  Reynosa itself was a windy and confusing town, and although I had studied my maps carefully before entering, I was still never quite sure if I was following my intended path (as the roads frequently were unlabeled).  Yet I still managed to pick my way through the bustle, and without one wrong turn.  Before long I had made my way across the center of the city and was on the busier roads to the periphery, now flowing with weaving cars, deafening trucks, and impatient buses (old yellow school-buses, nonetheless).  After tugging along slowly at the side of the road for some time, I went over a huge rut in the road and my load bounced precipitously on my bicycle behind me.  When I quickly glanced backwards, I saw that my cargo was all hanging askew and that one of my panniers had jumped off of the rack of my bike, crashing down onto the road before impending traffic!  Oh no, was this the end of my journey already?!  Only to cross the border and be humiliated as my equipment is run over and crushed irrecoverably?  But thankfully, no, it was not the end – the driver behind me quickly responded to obstruction, hit his brakes, and I spun around to recover my lost luggage and hobble haggardly to the side of the road to mend my disrepair.

    Soon I had re-secured my belongings, made some adjustments to prepare for the bumpy road ahead, and was again on my way.  From there on the voyage continued uneventfully, and the bustling roads soon yielded to dry, dusty, desert-like landscape.  I pedaled along in the oppressive afternoon heat, my skin soaked in sweat running with sunscreen.  I found myself frequently parched and often stopping to drain the many water bottles that adorned my bicycle.  After a few hours, I stopped for at a roadside tienda for an icy cold bottle of water (the boiling water in mine had lost their appeal) and practiced my spanish with a Mexican truck driver who was dining there.  I mopped my face with some napkins and waited for the heat to dissipate from my body before heading out.  When I continued on, the heat had still not subsided, and after a few more hours I found myself yearning to stop and camp for the evening.  I pulled over at a small carniceria along the way and asked the lady if I might camp on her property, which after a brief and awkward interview, she agreed to.  I headed out to the roadside (which, unfortunately, is where she said I could camp) and began setting up my tent.  As I did, young boy curiously appeared to greet me and we were soon setting up my tent together while I practiced my spanish on my new amiguito.  I had decided that it was no longer practical to wear a helmet in this kind of heat (time to throw caution to the wind and deal with the real dangers) and gave the shiny silver hat to my new friend, who was overjoyed with the new gift.  Eventually he returned to his home, but every so often he would ride his little bicycle back out to hang out and pass the evening away.  Eventually it was nightfall, and after reviewing my spanish books, I retired for the evening,  earplugs embedded deep in my ears (although it still couldn’t block out the sound of the trucks roaring by).

    The following morning I was awakened by what sounded like a swarm of roosters outside my tent, but when I finally dragged myself out to look, there were only two.  I told them it was little too early to be making all that noise, but they just rudely ignored me and continued on.  I disassembled my campsite, and just as I was about to head on, amiguito rolled up to give me a bottle of orange drink that his mother had prepared for me.  I thanked him thoroughly, wished him well and was again on my way.  It wasn’t long before the heat began to pick up again, but I had started my ride early today and it wasn’t far to San Fernando.  Along the way I stopped at a gas station for a cold drink and a portly local gentleman there inquired about my journey.  After I had explained to him, he offered to have me stay in his home, to which I readily agreed.  He drew me a small map, told me it was past a traffic light and a fruteria, and we parted to meet again when he got off work at eight thirty.  I rode for almost sixty miles through the alternating desert, scrub, and farmland and was eventually rewarded by a sign announcing that I had arrived in the village of San Fernando.  Although it wasn’t particularly an impressive place by any means, the dry, dusty town was a welcome sight and when I approached the Centro I found a quaint little courtyard alongside which I found some shredded roast chicken tacos, nuez ice cream, and a cold water.  I sat in the square and read for several hours then headed to another taco stand for a light meal before seeking out Luis’ house near the fruteria.  As the sun began to wane in the sky, I wondered if I would be able to find the place with such obscure directions, but thankfully the town was small enough that I quickly began to recognize the way and was soon pushing my bike up a rocky dirt road on a hill.  When I arrived, I recognized the house by the four delivery trucks surrounding it, and as I came closer, Luis and his four roommates were standing out front by the grill.

    The greeted me and I introduced myself to the rest of the group, then they showed me into the house.  It was quite a shock.  There were five of them living in a one room shotgun home, with all five beds and wooden cots lined up alongside one another, and a tiny bathroom attached to the side.  I soon realized why so many Mexican’s flee to the US to escape living in such conditions and wondered if I might have been better off sleeping in my tent.  Nevertheless, Luis offered me a shower, which was a luxury in itself, and I immediately retired to the bathroom.   The bathroom consisted essentially of a small spigot in the wall emitting a trickle of water, a non-functional sink, and a toilet which needed to be flushed by pouring water from a bucket into it (fortunately I had learned about these in Thailand).  I quickly washed the past two days grime from my skin, put on fresh clothes, and headed out to the debris littered front yard to join the other roommates in the darkness around the grill.  By this time they had started putting strips of meat on and were preparing grilled steak tacos (with the bones, which was a first for me) and we ate while drinking some Victoria beers.  I fumbled through conversation with them, mostly performing well when I controlled the conversation, but finding that I was easily lost when they conversed among one another in their colloquial accents and using obscure words that I had never heard.  Not long afterwards, I felt the inevitable pull of gravity as my day’s exhaustion hit me, and I knew it was time to lay down.  Luis recognized this and showed me which cot was mine (one of the guys wasn’t sleeping their that night), essentially a wooden frame with a blanket laid over it – not very comfortable at all.  However, eventually I managed to fall asleep, even with the lights on and the loud Mexican music blaring from the radio.

    Again I awoke to the loud cock-a-doodle-dooing of the ubiquitous roosters and raised myself from my wooden altar to pack and head out.  The other men were still snoring around me and one by one began to awaken and prepare for the day.  I was soon ready to go, and thanked Luis greatly for his hospitality in sharing his home with me then walked my bicycle down the ruddy dirt road back to the highway out of town.  I rode for several miles and eventually the landscape began to develop more character, with hills and mesas rising in the far off distance and greener vegetation spotting the roadside.  That day the temperature was cooler, and as I made my way along, I found a welcome cold front had turned the winds Southward and was pushing me along to Ciudad Victoria  I pedaled gallantly along, through pastures, hills, over vast inclines and mesas.  The surroundings were constantly evolving, from thick, bright shrubs to scorched earth, to ominous desert, then repeating again.  I had learned that a favorable wind was not something to take for granted, and although I had originally only planned to go sixty miles that day, I found myself chugging along at a fine speed and toward the end of the day had covered almost ninety miles of ground.  As the winds began to change, I was on the edge of a small town called Nueva Padilla and stopped at a nearby Mennonite cheese store on the side of the road to inquire as to whether there was a cheap hotel in the area.  The amiable young girl that greeted me told me that there was one not far up the road and although I was tempted to buy some of their delicious looking cheese, I knew that the large brick would not keep long in my luggage and headed towards the town.  At the corner before the hotel, I found a small semi-outdoor taco stand and decided to live dangerously.  I stepped into the partially enclosed cinder-block cabana and ordered some kind of taco from the gregarious woman there.  She was soon cooking it up and preparing one of the two tables for me alongside some local youngsters who I struck up some conversation with.  It was pleasant there, with the open roof and walls.  The leaves rustled in the overhanging trees above us as the refreshing winds gathered in preparation for an evening storm.  After finishing, I headed to the hotel within a small white-walled compound lined with orange trees and asked for a room.  Although the rooms were clearly renovated old stables, they were quite comfortable and austere, especially with the breezes flowing in through the open windows.

    In the morning I was awakened by the melodic chattering of dozens of birds in the orange trees outside and began to prepare for the final leg to Victoria.  But alas!  As I had just finished loading all of my heavy equipment carefully onto the bike, I began to maneuver it towards the door and realized that not one, but both of the tires were flat!  Ugh.. so there I went, unloading all of my equipment again, removing both tires, one at a time, and repairing the tubes.  Apparently, somewhere along the way, one had been punctured by a small scrap of metal and the other by a long, sharp thorn, but fortunately they had lasted until the hotel before deflating.  An hour later, once the beast was again road-worthy, we set off for the big city.  I cruised along and no sooner had I left Nueva Padilla than off on the horizon I spotted the pale azure silhouettes of a mountain range, no doubt the Sierra Oriental and the edge of the Tamaulipas state.  This sparked hope for me, and again the terrain began to change and I could feel the elevation rising with each gentle incline.  After a few hours I was nearing the mountain range and could see the city of Victoria clinging to the foothills way along the straight, flat road.  I neared the outskirts and was soon pedaling slowly towards the Centro, where my guide book had mentioned a few economical places in which to stay.  After trying the first one, I found that some of the information in my Lonely Planet guide was a bit obsolete and that prices had apparently crept up over the years.  I headed to the next, and here the rates were more favorable, so I checked in and soon had myself settled for the afternoon.  Following a quick shower and a change into a more urban outfit, I headed out for a stroll around town to see all it had to offer.  Although, as my guidebook had mentioned, the city was somewhat provincial, it was still a rather comfortable and lively place to wile away the rest of my Sunday afternoon and within a short while I had found a filling quesadilla, had some corn on the cob which was brushed with butter, crema, a type of hot sauce, and parmesan cheese, then finished with a small coconut desert from a dulceria along the way (and it was all dirt cheap too!).  I spent several hours roaming the streets and admiring the mountains that loomed over the city before heading back to the hotel for a nap.  During my stroll I had discovered a fantastic coffee shop with wifi service and once I was rested I returned there to some research, update my website, and do a little reading until the late evening.  

    Although I didn’t manage to finish my entry tonight, as I had hoped, I found myself well prepared to head to the Biosfera tomorrow and decided that I would return to the  wifi-eria tomorrow morning for a cup of coffee and a quick site update before embarking on my journey to what is supposed to be one of the most ecologically diverse and captivating natural reserves in this region of Mexico.  I’m not sure if I’ll find an internet connection again before Tampico, so it may be several days again before my next entry, but hopefully with it you’ll find gorgeous views of majestic cloud forests and wild jungle orchids, and maybe even some exciting stories from my mountain hiking.


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